There was no loud, grating voice, no squinting eyes or vulgar words flying from every direction - just a 15-year-old wannabe comedian named Gilbert Gottfried, a microphone and a stage.
Gottfried's sisters, who spent years watching his imitations of television personalities and celebrities, convinced him to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan to perform at The Bitter End's open mic night.
"They called it 'Hootenanny Night,'" recalls Gottfried, 58, in a phone interview. "I don't remember if I actually did well, or if I was too stupid to know I did badly. So I sort of kept doing it after that. I don't know, I guess I was too dumb to do anything else."
It was at countless open-mic nights where Gottfried slowly began to carve out his comedic persona. Today, his harsh, often-screechy voice can be heard behind everything from the parrot Iago in Disney's "Aladdin" movies, the Aflac duck (until offensive Twitter jokes about the Japanese tsunami got him fired in 2011), to his very-blue celebrity roasts on Comedy Central.
"I've always said my career walks a tightrope between early morning children's programming and hardcore pornography," Gottfried says.
Gottfried will headline the three-day Cape May Comedy Festival on Saturday, July 27, at Cape May Convention Hall. The inaugural festival kicks off Friday, July 26, and runs through Sunday, July 28, with performances at various venues throughout Cape May. The weekend includes performances by top stand-up comedians, a stand-up comedy competition, workshops and an outdoor comedy carnival.
In addition to Gottfried, Two Funny Philly Guys featuring Joe Conklin and Big Daddy Graham will perform at the main stage of Convention Hall Friday and Saturday.
Other shows throughout the weekend include The Wiseguyz of Comedy, featuring Reverend Bob Levy from the Howard Stern Show, Ladies of Laughter, Hometown Heroes, Laugh with Pride, Deceptimcomics and an open mic hosted by High Note Humor. Shows will be occurring at staggered times at venues throughout the city, including The Grand Hotel, The Chalfonte, VFW Post 386, A Ca Mia Ristorante, Pilot House and The Emlen Physick Estate.
The Stand-Up Comedy Competition will feature 96 comics performing in eight preliminary rounds (12 contestants per round each doing 5-minute sets). All rounds take place Friday and Saturday and are free to attend.
Finding the right comedians for the show was hard work. Festival co-producers Dan Sinclair and Jacquelyn Tocci of Rock Solid Productions spent months attending open mic nights, scouting comedians and passing out cards.
"We started this in November, so it's been a long time preparing for it," Tocci says. "We reached out to a lot of different comedy clubs … we went to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. - everywhere. We would go up to New York and map out all the open mics, hitting 16 or 17 in one night."
"In the past year I've probably been to a couple hundred shows," Tocci says. "The advantage though is, I have the tendency to watch the crowd. I'm always watching how the crowd reacts. So I have a different take on it."
The winner of the competition will open for Gottfried Saturday night, in addition to winning a $5,000 cash prize and guaranteed bookings with a number of prestigious comedy clubs, including Catch a Rising Star in New York City; The Comedy Stop inside The Quarter at Tropicana Casino Resort, Borgata Comedy Club; The Looney Bin of Staten Island, N.Y.; and Laff House in Philadelphia. Each of those clubs will also have representatives judging the competition.
"All day Friday and Saturday, people can come in and out, see really good comedy, and it's free," Tocci says.
The attractive prize, Sinclair says, has lured some great talent to the competition.
"The comics speak more about working with Gilbert (Gottfried) than the prize money," says Sinclair, a former promoter for actor and comedian Kevin Hart. "It's really great to have a national headliner."
Brad Trackman, owner of Philadelphia Comedy Institute, and Chris Aurilio, director of classes at The People's Improv Theatre of New York City, will each lead comedy workshops at Cape May Convention Hall Friday and Saturday. Classes include Comedy A to Z for Teens, Comedy A to Z for All Levels, Sketch Comedy Writing and Improv Comedy Scene Work.
Sunday Funday, a free, outdoor comedy carnival, will take place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street. The family-friendly event will include performances by prop comics, magicians, street performers like stilt walkers and clowns, and improv groups leading interactive games, in addition to traditional carnival games, a beer garden and vendors.
"People can expect an all-encompassing event," Tocci says. "We have workshops with really great instructors, like the owner and operator of Philadelphia Comedy Academy. The prices to go to the workshops are really discounted, and then we have all the shows. There's definitely something for everyone - a ladies show, a wise guys show. It's a really great spectrum of comedy."